Like most nations, the people of Poland come from a variety of backgrounds, with different family histories, different personal experiences and different views of the world. There are, however, some things which unite the Poles into a single nation. These include the suffering of the Poles during the Second World War, the subsequent communist oppression, and worst of all, the harrowing journeys to the post office that every person in Poland must at one time or another undertake.
To be welcomed into Polish society, you need only approach a Pole and say, “I just got back from the post office.” That is enough. The person before you understands that you have been through a trauma. You need immediate special treatment. You need help.
But do not linger on the fact that you are suffering. You have been through the worst of it and you have survived. What you must realise is that you have undergone a rite of passage. You have endured a horrific experience that every person around you has also endured. Do not linger on the past. Focus on the future. You may now call yourself one of them. You may now call yourself one of us.
My own debut was no more horrific or frightening than any other, but an individual’s own story is always more to the individual, and my story began on a sunny December afternoon. I had recently finished the third draft of my novel and I was in the process of making enquiries to agents. Querying agents is a bleak task. You know that the acceptance rate is as low as one percent, meaning that if you played the game mathematically, you must query one hundred agents to receive one acceptance – even at that there is no guarantee of success, and the one agent who accepts you may not even be appropriate for you. As if that weren’t difficult enough, the literary agency industry is a small one, the agents know each other, and they talk to each other. Agents, like all humans, want to feel that you have selected them not through some mathematical process (who enjoys that?) but after many hours of careful thinking and deliberation. Unfortunately, if a writer were to contact one agent at a time, and if that writer were to spend hours deciding which agent to contact, he or she would have little time left for writing, and with a waiting period of one week to six months to hear back from an agent and with a success rate of one percent, a writer may go a whole lifetime without ever being read by anybody other than an agent’s intern.
My own plan was a mixture of random selection and personalisation. I chose the agents who looked promising from a list of agents in a book, browsed their website for between two and ten minutes, and wrote the agent’s name at the top of the standard letter I had composed, changing the location I would be delighted to visit at my own expense in order to meet him or her personally. I then decided to send one query letter a day for thirty days. I understood the risk that if there were an agent’s convention, I would be found out and shunned by all. I did it anyway.
Once I decided to post a query a day, my work schedule immediately set me back three days. As a result, I went to the post office with three envelopes. In the centre of the city of Wroclaw there is a post office that is open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Being always open, I believed, would mean there would be no queue, since customers could spread out their visits and they could visit at quieter times. Further, I arrived at two o’clock in the afternoon, at a time when I assumed most people were at work. Before entering the building, I took out the three envelopes and my wallet from my bag to make the transaction as quick as possible, and then I opened the door and stopped. The queue extended to the door, meaning that I could not enter the building. I closed the door and waited a minute, then I opened the door again. The queue was the same. I peered at the people and I saw on their faces a dead expression. In their bodies there was no movement of impatience, there was just acceptance of the situation. I closed the door.
About five minutes later I opened the door again and saw that there was now a small space for me to squeeze into. I was now inside the building. Once my eyes had adjusted to the light, I gazed into the depths of the building and saw, far away, one clerk at work, and five or six empty desks. Ahead of me I counted fifteen people, each holding a pile of envelopes that could easily have been a year’s worth of correspondence. I felt foolish with my three envelopes. I was unprepared for the post office.
Time passed. In the bowels of the building, I heard a rubber stamp jackhammering objects into a resistant surface. It did not matter if the item was a letter or a fragile parcel, everything received the same aggressive assault. Time passed and slowly we marched forward. Some of us were hungry. Some of us needed to pee. Nobody else could hold your spot and there were no toilet breaks and there was no food. Some of us were old enough to be in real danger of expiring in this queue. After thirty minutes or ten hours, I was standing in front of the clerk. He did not look at me. He looked at his computer screen.
He held out his hand and I gave him my envelopes. He looked at the addresses and spoke to me in Polish.
“I’m sorry,” I said in Polish, “I don’t speak Polish.”
Still looking at his computer screen, he performed a 360 degree eye roll.
“Express?” he said in English.
I pushed forward my credit card.
Finally he looked at me. Again his eyes, like two tiny twin gymnasts, performed for me.
“If you want to pay by credit card, you must show me your passport.”
“But I don’t have my passport with me.” It was true. I had not planned to cross international borders that day, so I had left my passport at home. The clerk pushed my envelopes back at me and returned his gaze to his computer screen.
Not knowing what to do, I turned around and looked at my compatriots in the queue. There was little sympathy to be had in that queue. After all, the more time I spent with the clerk, the longer they had to wait. They wanted me out of the way. They wanted to resume their lives. I too wanted to resume my life, and as I walked past those who had just turned their backs on me, though not literally, for that could have jeopardised their place in the queue, I considered dumping my envelopes in a trash can and going home. I do not really need a career as a writer, I said to myself. This blog gives me satisfaction enough, does it not? But no, I admitted in the end, it is not enough. I wanted more, and if I wanted more, I would have to go back in.
Across the street from the post office is an ATM. I ran to it and fed it my credit card. The machine asked me for my PIN and the amount I wished to withdraw. Interestingly, I noted, the machine did not ask me for my passport.
With cash, I returned to the post office. Before opening the door, I allowed myself one last, long look at the world outside the post office: the sun shone through a clear December sky onto ancient cobblestones; tourists and locals moved unhurriedly from shop to shop and from café to café; a young man photographed a smiling young woman as she stood in front of the centuries-old town hall while the sun highlighted the ornate architecture; the air was crisp in my lungs and the wind chilled my ears. I opened the door and entered.
The only difference between now and before was that now I was prepared. There was no agitation on my part of when I would reach the clerk – it would be a long time. There were no mirrors or reflective surfaces for me to see myself, but if I were to guess, my facial expression was probably as dead as those around me.
Once more before the clerk, I was in the mood for revenge. Looking at his computer screen, he held out his hand. I held out my envelopes and stopped just short of his grasp. When nothing touched his hand he looked up and I saw that he recognised me. With my free hand I flashed the cash.
“Do you still need my passport?”
He ignored me and snatched the envelopes, embossed his stamp through them and into the desk and threw them onto a pile on the floor. I wondered if they would reach the agents at all. Without saying goodbye, I left. My act of revenge may seem small and insignificant, but in the Polish post office, the clerk is all-powerful, and we customers must get our satisfaction where we can. I was not satisfied, but the envelopes were delivered (two months later I received rejections from all three agents) and that was the important thing, I told myself.
They say that to be a successful writer you must be more determined than others. I believe it is a testament to my determination that during those thirty days, I returned almost every day to the post office and endured the process. Some days I could not bring myself to do it, and I returned to the post office several days later with two or three envelopes, but most days I managed to make it through, and if I am rejected by all thirty agents, I will do it all again. I will return to the post office, always looking to the future, always looking to the day when an agent’s no becomes a yes, to the day when I no longer have to face the inhumanity of the post office. That will be my biggest success.
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